Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Going Rogue, Part III: The EPA Ignores
Rules it Finds Inconvenient

What do Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Coastal Conservation have in common with the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, the Consumer Federation of America, the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, and the Center for Auto Safety?

And what do those two groups have in common with the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Conservative Union? What strange force can unite these diverse organizations?

Would you believe that they are united against a proposed action by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?

The EPA was created in 1970 by President Richard Nixon and passed into law by Congress. The 17,000-person agency has primary responsibility for setting and enforcing national standards under a variety of environmental laws, and has been such a bulldog in enforcing environmental rules in the past that you might be surprised to learn that this year the agency has abandoned the rules it expects others to follow.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) informs us that “The Environmental Protection Agency has indicated it may take action later this year to approve higher levels of ethanol in fuel blends, even though critical vehicle tests and environmental analyses mandated by the Clean Air Act have not yet been completed.”

But as serious as that is, the problem is much broader than the mere fact that the EPA has forsaken the timetable for making the decision of whether to increase the amount of ethanol in fuel blends from the current 10 percent (E10) to 15 percent (E15), and the unknowns of this action have this diverse group – many of whom have been bitter enemies in the past – uniting against the agency’s action.

“What’s the big deal?” you ask. “Isn’t it better for the environment if the amount of ethanol in gasoline is increased?” Maybe; but maybe not. That is what is to be determined by the scientific review process and through comments by various interested parties, and that is why the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, along with 40 other associations and organizations, have written EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging the EPA to base its decision to increase ethanol levels on a complete scientific record that includes up-to-date information and public comment on data and testing.

If the decision to increase ethanol levels by 50 percent is made this year, perhaps as early as this month, it will short-circuit the process outlined by the Clean Air Act, which mandates a detailed scientific review before new fuels, additives or fuel blends are introduced into commercial fuels, and scientific reviews of E15’s impact won’t be completed until next year.

“We write to express our concern that EPA may decide to allow the introduction into commerce of mid-level ethanol blends such as E15 based on new information that was not available for public comment when the docket was open last year,” the coalition stated. “We respectfully but strongly request that EPA provide for a second period of public comment on any data, tests, or studies that EPA may take into consideration in making its determination if such information was not available for review and comment as of the close of the initial public comment period on July 20, 2009.”

At issue is the degree to which fuels with increased ethanol levels will be compatible with today’s equipment. Ethanol is very corrosive, and could harm equipment such as automobile engines and gasoline station pumps and storage tanks. API suggests that problems may exist with storage and dispensing equipment that may create additional environmental problems through spills and leaks, which in turn could pose a threat to consumer safety. And, higher-level ethanol blends like E15 could also threaten vehicle performance and safety, void manufacturers’ warranties and confuse consumers.

“Higher levels of ethanol blends in gasoline have not yet been proven safe or effective, and it would be a mistake for EPA to act before all necessary testing is completed,” API said. The scientific reviews of E15’s impact on vehicle engines won’t be completed until 2011.

The EPA is a controversial agency and many of its actions draw strong opposition, because they seem heavy-handed and arbitrary. And increasingly, the EPA appears to have become an arm of the environmental movement. The decision last March to block a West Virginia mountaintop coal mine that had already received a federal permit is but one example. Mountaintop mining is unpopular among environmentalists, but mining is a fundamental part of West Virginia’s economy.

However, no issue illustrates this more effectively than the EPA position on carbon emissions. While Congress is reluctant to regulate carbon emissions, because cooler heads in both parties worry about the negative economic impacts of doing so, the EPA has inasmuch as said, “If you don’t regulate carbon emissions, we will.”

Most serious problems in the United States today can be linked to government interference. Our government is not only too big and too intrusive, but agencies like the EPA are increasingly ideologically driven, and sometimes ignore the rules the rest of us are expected to follow when those rules interfere with its ideological agenda.

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